May 13, 2016
by Sarah Beganskas
It’s 9:30 in the morning, and after a lovely 45-minute walk to Capitol Hill, I find myself standing outside Representative Sam Farr’s office door. Though the balmy weather is indistinguishable from that of my home in Santa Cruz, I feel worlds away. What will happen on the other side of that door? As a scientist who spends time in the field, I know that when I apply new knowledge for the first time, things don’t always go as planned. So while I’m excited to put my new skills into practice, I’m also very nervous! Will I say the right things? What questions will be asked? Will I know the answers? I take a deep breath and remind myself of all that I’ve learned in preparation as the door opens and we step inside…
For the past five days, I’d been in Washington, DC for AAAS’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop and AGU’s Congressional Visits Day (CVD). I am passionate about science communication—and though I had no previous experience with science policy, I love to try new things—so I was thrilled to be accepted to these science policy workshops.
One of the first things I learned was that I didn’t even fully understand the phrase “science policy”. Our first speaker explained the distinction between science policy (regulations governing research funding and practices) and science for policy (science informing political decisions). Science is only one factor among many considered in political decision-making; and while science can make quantitative observations and predictions, it alone cannot define values and priorities. This was a humbling consideration for a scientist whose research on groundwater resources in drought-stricken California is very policy-relevant.
Funding is a huge part of science policy, so we devoted much time to learning about the federal budget. While science research generally has bipartisan support, the budget process is a complicated negotiation between many competing values. We experienced a taste of this first-hand when we came up with our own mock version of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill. Balancing different interests was more challenging than I expected; in this bill, science agencies compete for funding with other important programs like the FBI, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and US Census. Even we scientists started eyeing NASA’s and NSF’s large budgets when we found ourselves a few million dollars over budget.
Throughout the CASE Workshop, many visiting speakers and panelists drove home the idea that the legislative process is nuanced and complicated, but the most memorable was Congressional Specialist Judy Schneider. Her intelligent, humorous, and intense presentation called our understanding of our own government into question. She proclaimed that, contrary to what we may have learned in grade school, Congress’s primary responsibility is not to pass laws, but to keep bad laws from being passed: If all 10,000 bills introduced by each Congress actually made it into law, she claimed, we would be much worse off! Her detailed discussions on Congressional procedure highlighted that we, as constituents, can play an important role, but being informed and engaged are vital first steps.
After completing the CASE Workshop and AGU CVD training, participants had meetings with our legislators on Capitol Hill, and being well-informed was an important part of preparing. The day before our meetings, my fellow Californians and I researched our representatives and worked to tailor our messages to each one. I was responsible for leading our first meeting of the day with my Representative, Sam Farr.
As we entered Representative Farr’s office the next morning, we admired the large collection of California Central Coast wines and scenic photos of Big Sur proudly displayed. We introduced ourselves and I fell into an easy conversation with Zoe, a legislative assistant for Representative Farr. It turns out I had nothing to be nervous about: I was articulate and confident as I shared some of my research findings with implications for our district. I felt proud and relieved as I left the office a short while later, excited to continue our visits for the day.
Reflecting on my time in Washington, DC, I believe every scientist would benefit from learning more about the policy process, taking time to consider the larger picture in which our research takes place, and engaging with the brilliant, hardworking people who work in our government. My rewarding experiences are a case in point.
Sarah is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz studying ground water supply and quality.